“They Shall Look on Him Whom They Have Pierced"
Toward A Theology of the Sacred Heart
Don Marco, O.Cist.
“Knowing the Mystery of God in the Pierced Heart of the Crucified” “In the pierced heart of the Crucified, God’s own heart is opened up — here we see who God is and what he is like. Heaven is no longer locked up. God has stepped out of his hiddenness. That is why St. John sums up both the meaning of the Cross and the nature of the new worship of God in the mysterious promise made through the prophet Zechariah (cf. 12:10). ‘They shall look on him whom they have pierced’ (Jn 19:37).”
Pope Benedict XVI: Theologian of the Heart of Christ
In July of 1985, I was standing in the bookstore of the Abbey of Sainte-Cécile of Solesmes in France when, by a wonderful providence of God, I met the Benedictine scholar, Mother Elisabeth de Solms. The encounter remains unforgettable. I had long studied and used her admirable translation of the Life and Rule of Saint Benedict, as well as her Christian Bible, a series of volumes setting the commentaries of the Church Fathers line by line alongside the Scriptures. The simplicity of so great a woman was a marvel. She engaged me in conversation, asking if I had read the works of Cardinal Ratzinger. I admitted that I was familiar with certain writings of his, surely not with everything published. “Read him,” she said. “You will see. God will make of him a great gift to his Church.” That was twenty years ago.
I began reading Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. I devoured, in particular, his writings on the sacred liturgy in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. I discovered, among other things in the writings of Cardinal Ratzinger, elements of a theology of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. In Pope Benedict XVI God has given the Church a shepherd who has contemplated the pierced Heart of the Crucified and already written of it, notably in Behold The Pierced One and, more recently, in The Spirit of the Liturgy.
Cardinal Ratzinger’s writings on the Sacred Heart are warm and luminous. Fire and light are characteristic of a theology forged in experience. Theologians who do not persevere in a humble prayer of amazement and adoration fall inevitably into one of two syndromes. Either they generate heat without shedding any light, or they shine a cold light, one that fails to warm the heart. The true theologian at once warms the heart and illumines the mind. Recall the words of Jesus concerning John the Baptist: “He was a burning and shining lamp, and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light” (Jn 5:35). In our new Holy Father, God has given the Church “a burning and shining lamp” (Jn 5:35). Those already familiar with his writings and liturgical preaching know what I mean.
Theology itself is a difficult word. Theology of the Sacred Heart thrusts us into deep waters. The Song of Songs assures us that, “many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it” (Ct 8:7). Theology is more than a mere flood of words. All words oblige us, in some way, to wrestle with meaning. Words are the vehicle of meaning. Words wait to be unlocked. The words we use in talking about God, or in talking to God, can be unlocked only in prayer. Before we can reflect on a theology of the Sacred Heart, we have to ask ourselves this question: “What do we mean by theology?”
The Greek etymology of the word discloses both God (theós) and word (lógos). Lógos, in turn, has a huge richness: it can mean word, but it also signifies meaning, message, poem, and even hymn. When we speak of theology we mean not one thing but at least three: (1) word from God; (2) word to God; and (3) word about God. All theology, and therefore a theology of the Sacred Heart, is more adequately understood in terms of (1) God’s self-revealing word addressed to us; (2) the doxological word of Christ and of the Church addressed to God; and (3) the healing word of the Church addressed to the world.
The Sacred Heart: God’s Word Addressed to Us
Theology is, first of all, God’s word addressed to us. Apply this immediately to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The pierced Heart of the Crucified is God speaking a word to us, a word carved out in the flesh of Jesus’ side by the soldier’s lance. It is the love of God laid bare for all to see: “God stepping out of his hiddenness.” When we speak of a theology of the Sacred Heart, we mean this first of all: not our discourse about love, but the love of God revealed first to us, the poem of love that issues forth from the Heart of God. This is exactly what Saint John, whom the Eastern tradition calls, “The Theologian,” says in his First Letter: “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins” (1 Jn 4:10).
The difficulty here is that, in order to receive this word inscribed in the flesh of the Word (cf. Jn 1:14), we have first to stop in front of it, to linger there, and to look long at the wound made by love. “They shall look on him whom they have pierced” (Jn 19:37). To contemplate is to look, not with a passing glance, but with the gaze of one utterly conquered by love. Jeremiah says, “You have seduced me O Lord, and I was seduced; you are stronger than I, and you have prevailed” (Jer 20:7).
The call to be an adorer of the Sacred Heart, and the call to be an apostle of the Sacred Heart is addressed to every Christian. The apostle is, in essence, the bearer of a word, one sent forth and entrusted with a message. The message that the apostle carries into the world is the one he has learned by looking long with the eyes of adoration at the pierced Heart of the Crucified.
The word of Crucified Love is hard to pronounce — hard to pronounce, I mean, not with our lips but with our lives. Adoration is the school wherein one learns how to say the Sacred Heart. It is in adoration that the apostle receives the word of the pierced Heart that, in turn, becomes his life’s message. Adoration and apostleship together model a spirituality accessible to all Christians: the word received in adoration is communicated in the dynamism of one sent forth with something to say.
The Sacred Heart: Our Word Addressed to God
Theology is, in the second place, our word addressed to God. Applying this also to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, we see that all that we could possibly want to say to God has already been uttered and is being said eternally through the “mouth” of Christ’s glorious pierced Heart in heaven. It is through the Sacred Heart that the Blood of Christ speaks “more graciously than the blood of Abel” (Heb 12:24). The Letter to the Hebrews puts it this way: “Christ is able for all time to save those who draw near to God through him, since he lives forever to make intercession for them” (Heb 7:25). Christ exercises his priesthood of intercession in “the inner sanctuary behind the veil” (Heb 6:19) by presenting to the Father the glorious wounds in his hands, his feet, and his side. The wound in the side of Christ, “great high priest over the house of God” (Heb 10:21), speaks to the Father on our behalf. It is our word addressed to God.
At the core of devotion to the Sacred Heart is a passing-over into the prayer of Christ to the Father, a long apprenticeship to silence by which we begin to let the Heart of Christ speak in us and for us to the Father. The mystics of the Sacred Heart, in particular Saint Gertrude and Saint Mechthilde, speak of offering the Sacred Heart of Jesus to the Father. This means allowing the Sacred Heart to speak for us, to pray in us, to pray through us, taking comfort in what Scripture says, “that we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb 4:15).
This suggests a simple way of praying, one accessible to all: “Lord Jesus, I come to be silent in your presence, trusting that your Heart will speak for me, knowing that all I could ever want to say, that all I would ever need to say, is spoken eternally to the Father by your Sacred Heart.” In this way, everything that prayer can or should express — adoration, praise, thanksgiving, supplication, and reparation — finds its most perfect expression. Devotion to the Sacred Heart, thus understood, is a manifestation in the Church of the Holy Spirit, “helping us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought” (Rom 8:26).
In the same passage, Saint Paul says that the Father “who searches the hearts of men knows what is the mind of the Spirit because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Rom 8:27). The Father who searches every human heart searched the Heart of Jesus, “formed by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mother,” from the moment of the Incarnation, and found in the beating of that Heart the perfect expression of what is the mind of the Spirit. The Sacred Heart is, in the life of the Church, the organ by which “the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Rom 8:27).
Cardinal Ratzinger wrote: “We see who Jesus is if we see him at prayer. The Christian confession of faith comes from participating in the prayer of Jesus, from being drawn into his prayer and being privileged to behold it; it interprets the experience of Jesus’ prayer, and its interpretation of Jesus is correct because it springs from a sharing in what is most personal and intimate to him.” This is the prayer of the Sacred Heart, the prayer that filled the days and nights of Jesus’ earthly life, the prayer that suffused his sufferings and ascended from the cross at the hour of his death, the prayer that with him descended into the depths of the earth, the prayer that continues uninterrupted in the glory of his risen and ascended life, the prayer that is ceaseless in the Sacrament of the Altar.
Cardinal Ratzinger wrote that “by entering into Jesus’ solitude,” and “only by participating in what is most personal to him, his communication with the Father, can one see what this most personal reality is; only thus can one penetrate to his identity.” The Sacred Heart represents and invites us into what is most personal to Jesus: his communication with the Father. In words that today sound almost prophetic, Cardinal Ratzinger concluded that, “the person who has beheld Jesus’ intimacy with his Father and has come to understand him from within is called to be a ‘rock’ of the Church. The Church arises out of participation in the prayer of Jesus (cf. Lk 9:18-20; Mt 16:13-20).”
The Prayer of the Sacred Heart in the New Testament
The Letter to the Hebrews tells us exactly what was the prayer of the Heart of Christ at the moment he took flesh in the Virgin’s womb: “When Christ came into the world, he said, ‘Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure.’ Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come to do your will, O God,’ as it is written of me in the scroll of the book’” (Heb 10:5-7). This is the first prayer of the Heart of Jesus, “substantially united to the Word of God.”
The prayer of the Heart of Christ revealed in the Letter to the Hebrews resonates throughout the Fourth Gospel. Cardinal Ratzinger wrote: “We could say that the Fourth Gospel draws us into that intimacy which Jesus reserved for those who were his friends” (ibid., 22). The Gospel of the Beloved Disciple belongs, in a special sense, to the friends of the Heart of Jesus.
The liturgy gives us the Gospel of Saint John on every Sunday and weekday during Paschaltide. Holy Thursday’s Gospel of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet at the Last Supper (Jn 13:1-5) becomes Good Friday’s Gospel of the Heart from which flowed blood and water: “They shall look on him whom they have pierced” (Jn 19:34-37). By continuing to read the Fourth Gospel on Easter Sunday (Jn 20:1-9) and for the fifty days following, the liturgy guides us into the prayer of the Heart of Christ.
The Second Sunday of Easter, that of Divine Mercy, invites us, in a particular way, to the contemplation of the Sacred Heart. In the Gospel (Jn 20:19-31), the risen Christ stands before Thomas, inviting him to touch his wounded side. Cardinal Ratzinger wrote: “All of us are Thomas, unbelieving; but like him, all of us can touch the exposed Heart of Jesus and this touch and behold the Logos himself. So, with our hands and eyes fixed upon this Heart, we can attain to the confession of faith: ‘My Lord and my God!’”
The liturgical lectionary’s repartition of the Fourth Gospel is integral to the mystical pedagogy of the Church. When the liturgical Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus arrives on the Friday following the second Sunday after Pentecost, it finds us, in this way, already prepared, ready and full of desire to pass fully into the prayer of the Sacred Heart.
For Cardinal Ratzinger, “the entire gospel testimony is unanimous that Jesus’ words and deeds flowed from his most intimate communion with the Father; that he continually went ‘into the hills’ to pray in solitude after the burden of the day (e.g., Mk 1:35; 6:46; 14:35, 39).” He notes that, “Luke, of all the Evangelists, lays stress on this feature. He shows that the essential events of Jesus’ activity proceeded from the core of his personality and that this core was his dialogue with the Father.”
The Prayer of the Sacred Heart in the Psalms
The psalms also express and communicate the prayer of the Heart of Christ. The Psalter is for the Church a “sacrament” of the prayer of the Heart of Christ to the Father, revealing that prayer and making it present in her. Jesus intoned two psalms from the Cross, leaving it to his Church to continue them: Psalm 21 in Matthew 21:46, and Psalm 30 in Luke 23:46. “And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46). The Church, imaged in the Mother of Jesus, the beloved disciple, and the other holy women at the foot of the Cross (cf. Jn 19:25), prays the psalm through to the end to discover in its triumphant final verses (Ps 21:22-31) the promise of a banquet for the afflicted and the hope of the resurrection: “The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied; and those who seek him shall praise the Lord! May your hearts live forever” (Ps 21:26).
Psalm 30 gives the verse, “Into your hands I commit my spirit” (Ps 30:5). Praying it from the Cross at the hour of his death, Jesus adds a single word, a word that rises out of the depths of his Heart and utterly transforms the psalmist’s prayer into one by which the Son entrusts everything to the Father. “Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!’ And having said this he breathed his last” (Lk 23:46). “Jesus died praying. . . . Although the Evangelists’ accounts of the last words of Jesus differ in details, they agree on the fundamental fact that Jesus died praying. He fashioned his death into an act of prayer, an act of worship. . . . The last words of Jesus were an expression of his devotion to the Father . . . . His cry was not uttered to anyone, anywhere, but to Him, since it was of his innermost essence to be in a dialogue relationship with the Father.”
The Prayer of the Sacred Heart in the Liturgy
The prayer of the Heart of Christ at the hour of his sacrifice passes entirely into the heart of the Church where it is prolonged and actualized “from the rising of the sun to its setting” (Mal 1:11) in the Liturgy of the Hours and in the mystery of the Eucharist. Cardinal Ratzinger asks if, after the once–for–all Pasch of Jesus anything more is needed. “After the tearing of the Temple curtain and the opening up of the heart of God in the pierced heart of the Crucified, do we still need sacred space, sacred time, mediating symbols? Yes, we do need them, precisely so that, through the ‘image,’ through the sign, we learn to see the openness of heaven. We need them to give us the capacity to know the mystery of God in the pierced heart of the Crucified.” It is through the liturgy, first and above all, that we pass over into the prayer of the Sacred Heart, the word to the Father forever inscribed in his pierced side.
The Sacred Heart: the Church’s Word to the World
Theology is, finally, a word about God addressed to the world, a word about God addressed to anyone who will listen. The Sacred Heart, pierced in death, becomes a word of life for the world. “Death, which by its very nature is the end, the destruction of every communication, is changed by Jesus into an act of self-communication; and this is man’s redemption, for it signifies the triumph of love over death. We can put the same thing another way: death, which puts an end to words and to meaning, itself becomes a word, becomes the place where meaning communicates itself.” This means that after the mouth of Jesus fell silent in death, there remained the open side and the pierced Heart that speaks of nothing but love, the ultimate and everlasting word about God.
In the final analysis, one “impelled by the charity of Christ” (cf. 2 Cor 5:14) will have but one message, that of the Pierced Heart revealing the love of the Father and “drawing all to himself” (cf. Jn 12:32). One who has contemplated the message carved in the flesh of Jesus’ side by the soldier’s lance and learned to read it in adoration has but one language in which to speak to the world: the language of the heart. It is learned not in conferences or classrooms or books, but in silence and in the contemplation of the Pierced One. It is learned especially in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament.
The language of the heart encompasses a thousand local dialects, a million accents. Devotion to the Sacred Heart impels the Christian to an inventive charity, a charity ready to explore every dark and treacherous place in search of the lost sheep. “Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and maimed and blind and lame” (Lk 14:21). “The great gesture of embrace emanating from the Crucified has not yet reached its goal; it has only just begun.”
The Sacred Heart: Word from God, Word to God, Word for the World
Word of God addressed to us, word addressed to God, word of the Church addressed to the world: herein lies one approach to a theology of the Sacred Heart. The liturgy remains its primary articulation. Together with the Liturgy of the Hours for the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart, the twelve biblical texts provided for the Mass — a first reading, psalm, second reading, and gospel for each of the three years A, B, and C — become a fundamental resource, an inexhaustible treasure waiting to be mined for every one called to hear, to pray, and to offer the healing word that is the pierced Heart.
The Sacred Heart is the Heart of God laid bare for man: word from God. It is a human Heart lifted high on the Cross: word to God. It is the Heart of the Church open to all who seek, to all who thirst, to every lost sheep waiting to be found and carried home: word for the world.
The Sacred Heart of Jesus is the full and irrevocable message of the Father to us. It is everything we ever could or should need to say to the Father. It is all we have to say to one another and to the world. Pope Benedict XVI, writing in 1981 as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, challenges us to nothing less: “In the Heart of Jesus, the center of Christianity is set before us. It expresses everything, all that is genuinely new and revolutionary in the New Covenant. This Heart calls to our heart. It invites us to step forth out of the futile attempt of self-preservation and, by joining in the task of love, by handing ourselves over to him and with him, to discover the fullness of love which alone is eternity and which alone sustains the world.”
Don Marco, O.Cist. is a Benedictine-Cistercian monk of the Abbey of the Basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, Piazza Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, 12, I-00185, Roma, Italia.